Friday, February 21, 2014

Great literature - I

I had mentioned earlier that while reading Joseph Anton I was intimidated by Rushdie's easy familiarity with writers from across the globe and their works. I had not read much fiction for the past couple of decades and was not familiar with many of the works that he  referred to. I thought that I should do something about it so I have been on a literature reading spree for the past few months.Nothing like being jobless for reading some thick books. (Although the reading has not been at such a frenetic pace.)

I thus recently finished reading The Brothers Karamazov which I had been putting off for a long time because of its size (about 900 pages). There are widely varying views on Dostoevsky. As Irwin Weil says in this talk many writers were deeply influenced by his works while Vladimir Nabokov thought that he wrote thick books of 'elephantine  platitudes'. I will be somewhere in between.. Like the curate's egg, the novel was good in parts.

I skimmed through about 1/3 of the book which consisted of  pious ramblings by the monks of a monastery. It was too didactic for my taste. The other parts of the book were more interesting although there were some over-long speeches which I again skimmed through. But I didn't agree with Dostoevsky's conclusion that faith is required for virtue. Of course not. Euthyphro's dilemma addresses the question. I am more in agreement with the views of Lawrence Krauss in this discussion. There is an apt description of a human tendency that is my biggest challenge by one of the Karamazov brothers, Aloysha:
"Oh, my smile meant something quite different. I'll tell you why I smiled. Not long ago I read the criticism made by a German who had lived in Russia, on our students and schoolboys of to-day. 'Show a Russian schoolboy,' he writes, 'a map of the stars, which he knows nothing about, and he will give you back the map next day with corrections on it.' No knowledge and unbounded conceit -- that's what the German meant to say about the Russian schoolboy."
When Dimitry Karamazov is being interrogated after being accused of committing parricide, he says:
Don't think I'm drunk. I'm quite sober now. And, besides, being drunk would be no hindrance. It's with me, you know, like the saying: 'When he is sober, he is a fool; when he is drunk, he is a wise man.'
The same sentence can be reworded to describe me: 'Before stroke, he was a fool; after stroke, he is wiser. Take for instance what I know about evolution. Almost everything I know now about evolution was learnt after my stroke. I don't know why it is not given much more space in schools considering that it doesn't encounter nearly as much religious opposition in India as it does in the US and in Islamic countries.

Before my stroke, I was more accustomed to the Homo economicus assumption. Now I know that biases and irrationalities are all pervasive. It takes some vanity to call our species Homo sapiens. Irrationality seems to be the default position of the human brain. Many phenomena are probabilistic and the human brain cannot intuitively grasp them so superstitions have a field day.

And then there is religion. Before my stroke  I was a  passive participant in religious functions. Even though I was not a believer, I did not give much thought to  what was happening around me. Goaded by experiences after my stroke, I began to think more about these things and I began to have a progressively dimmer view of religion. The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is all pervasive. Examples of talks I listened to are the Beyond Belief meetings and academics on God.

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